The New York Times' Columnist Problem

Bill Keller, the editor of the world's most influential newspaper, may be losing his mind. He made the poor choice to start writing his own column, which promptly went to hell in its second week. He wrote a whiny, trite, un-self-aware media column, ensuring that most people wouldn't care, and those who cared would find his work embarrassing.

Bill tried to recover from this mini-fiasco by writing a blog post that was equal to the column in its self-righteousness, as well as in its patronizing tone. Allow us to reiterate the overarching problem here for you, Bill: you already edit America's greatest paper. You have absolutely nothing, zero, nada to gain by indulging your latent columnizing itch. All you will do is drag yourself—and the entire paper along with you—into a neverending stream of argument and vitriol about your own worthless personal opinions and how they prove that the New York Times is stupid, corrupt, and/ or in decline. It is inevitable. And it's not worth it. And you will never win, no matter what arguments you make, Bill, because of who you are and the position you hold. So just give up, and be happy with running America's best newspaper.

And speaking of how the New York Times is in decline, can you say "Bill Keller is but one representative of a larger problem"? Say it! The problem in question is: the NYT's woeful lack of good columnists. They have lots of big names, but very few of their columnists are actually really good. Consider:

  • Nick Kristof and Bob Herbert are both great humanitarians whose work draws valuable attention to important social and political causes that are neglected but critical. They're also both equally boring writers.
  • Maureen Dowd long ago stopped trying to give topics deep and productive intellectual consideration, in favor of constructing easy narratives and catchy nicknames for politicians that would mesh easily with outdated pop culture references. She's essentially given up. (That's the charitable interpretation.)
  • David Brooks is the male version of Maureen Dowd, but yuppier. He also writes remarkably bad books.
  • Thomas Friedman is a glorified management consultant who lives in an insulating bubble of wealth, and is perhaps the worst famous nonfiction writer in America.
  • Frank Rich is leaving.
  • Ross Douthat is a weird little geek with a very small Bible tucked in his Underoos. Roger Cohen is okay. Gail Collins is good, and Paul Krugman is the most worthwhile of the bunch. Joe Nocera's also good at what he does, but putting him on the op-ed page leaves a hole of the same size in the Business section. Mark Bittman is fine, but don't be surprised if you wake up ten years from now and he's turned into David Brooks.
Sure, the NYT has some good columnists in Arts and Business and (maybe) the magazine (although we're not holding out much hope for Mr. Keller). But the primo, big time, reputation-making spots on the op-ed pages look like a parking lot with one Audi, a couple Toyotas, and a bunch of rusty old 1984 Lincoln Continentals. Those things just don't impress people like they used to. You know who really cares what most of these NYT columnists have to say? The relative handful of old people who've always cared what NYT columnists had to say, no matter who they were. The rest of the commentariat-seeking hordes long ago left for the greener pastures of Glenn Greenwald, and other writers who actually try.

You need some new blood over there, Bill Keller. Not your own.

[Photo: AP]